Books in Brief November 2014

A roundup of reviews including Sam Harris’s Waking Up, Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Eat and Karen Speerstra and Herbet Anderson’s The Divine Art of Dying.

Lion’s Roar
14 October 2014

Waking Up

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion
By Sam Harris
Simon & Schuster 2014; 256 pp., $26 (cloth)

The author of The End of Faith, Sam Harris is a scathing critic of religion and anything that he deems superstition. Yet he considers himself to be spiritual and has spent many years practicing meditation. As he explains it, human beings experience altered states of consciousness under a wide range of conditions—sometimes they manifest spontaneously, while at other times they’re brought about through drug use, a near death experience, or a spiritual practice such as meditation. Generally, these altered states are interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, but this, Harris says, is a mistake. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and so on can all experience self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, and inner light. Their experiences, therefore, do not constitute evidence in support of their individual religious beliefs, since their beliefs are incompatible with one another. As such, Harris concludes, a deeper principle must be at work—one that’s universal and secular. In Waking Up, Harris explores where spirituality and science meet, including an analysis of the relationship between the brain and consciousness. He also gives readers instruction in meditation as a rational spiritual practice.

Moving Into Meditation

A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners
By Anne Cushman
Shambhala Publications 2014; 288 pp., $19.95 (paper)

We often put yoga in a box called “body practice.” Yet as soon as we step our bare feet on a yoga mat, we crash into our mind and the full gamut of human emotions. Likewise, we tend to think of meditation as a mental activity, but our body—with its itchy shins and aching back—follows us to the cushion every time. Body and mind were never meant to be separate, and Moving Into Meditation can help us experience them as a whole. To implement the twelve-step program in this book, it doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned yogi or a relative beginner. And it doesn’t matter if you do Anusara or Ashtanga, Iyengar or Bikram. As long as you know at least an asana or two, you can discover how to deepen your yoga practice and become more intimate with yourself and your world.

The Present Heart

A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery
By Polly Young-Eisendrath
Rodale 2014; 288 pp., $24.99 (cloth)

Many have gone through the ordeal of watching their parents or grandparents suffer from Alzheimer’s, and a plethora of books have been written on the illness from that perspective. But as psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath points out in The Present Heart, the experience is significantly different when it’s your spouse who’s gotten the diagnosis. Young-Eisendrath met Edward Epstein on an airplane in 1969. Then, a decade later, chance reunited them. They broke off their existing relationships, married each other, and proceeded to love, work, bicker, and grow together. In 2001, however, Epstein began an insidious decline in his emotional and intellectual maturity, and by 2009 the reason was confirmed: he had early-onset Alzheimer’s. In telling the story of her marriage, Young-Eisendrath brings to bear her many years of Buddhist practice and sheds light on impermanence, pain, and the true nature of love.

The Divine Art of Dying

How to Live Well While Dying
By Karen Speerstra and Herbert Anderson
Divine Arts 2014; 284 pp., $18.95 (paper)

One day, ten years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Karen Speerstra arrived home during a storm. The snow was piled so high in the driveway that she couldn’t pull in and had to walk about fifty yards, uphill. As she trudged through the deep snow, fatigue hit her like a wall. It was then that she decided there would be no more chemo for her; it was no longer working, and she wanted quality of life now, not quantity. Speerstra passed away in November 2013, but—working with friend and cancer survivor Herbert Anderson—she has left behind The Divine Art of Dying, which is part memoir and part spiritual, philosophical, and psychological guidebook for gravely ill people who choose to face death head on. As it says in the introduction, “This book seeks to rewrite the old cliché ‘I want to live until I die’ and make it ‘I recognize I can choose to live fully, sometimes sadly, but often joyously and with great gratitude as long as I can.”

The Grace in Aging

Awaken as You Grow Older
By Kathleen Dowling Singh
Wisdom Publications 2014; 240 pp., $17.95 (paper)

“Being old is new for us,” quips dharma practitioner and psychotherapist Kathleen Dowling Singh. “Nevertheless, it’s a bit disingenuous of us to pretend that we’re not aging.” Like dying, aging is a subject we often resist exploring in any depth, particularly as it relates to us personally. Yet aging is inevitable, and the energy we expend in avoiding this truth would be better spent experiencing the simple of joy of right now. Aging does not automatically result in spiritual maturity, so any transformation we undergo is dependent on our own intention. The Grace in Aging is for those who over the course of their lives have been drawn to spiritual practice and who would like to dedicate their remaining years to going deeper and finding more sanity, kindness, and peace. Singh has attempted to present the material as ecumenically as possible, but if you’re far along on a particular path, there may be some phrasing that seems at odds with it. Singh encourages you to “translate” what she says into the view and diction of your own wisdom tradition.

The Real People of Wind and Rain

Talks, Essays, & an Interview
By Andrew Schelling
Singing Horse Press 2014; 214 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Love and the Turning Seasons

India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Counterpoint 2014; 294 pp., $24 (cloth)

A longtime faculty member of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Andrew Schelling is passionate about all facets of language, and The Real People of Wind and Rain reflects this. Schelling’s exploration of storytelling, etymology, poetics, and translation is meandering and makes many surprising connections to ecology and place. Buddhists might particularly enjoy his essay “Zen & the Precepts of Baseball,” which was originally published in the Shambhala Sun. Also from Schelling is the new anthology Love and the Turning Seasons, a sampling of spiritual and erotic poems spanning 2,500 years and all hailing from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, in this context, the mystical and the carnal blur together. Mahadeviyakka, one of the featured poets, is a good example. Born in the twelfth century, she considered herself wedded to a form of Shiva whom she called “the White Jasmine Lord.” She left her unhappy marriage with a mortal man and, as if drunk on divinity, she took to wandering wearing nothing but her long hair. “O lord white as jasmine,” she asked, “when do I join you stripped of body’s shame and heart’s modesty?”

Japan’s World Heritage Sites

Unique Culture, Unique Nature
By John Dougill
Tuttle 2014; 192 pp., $34.95 (cloth)

The photography in Japan’s World Heritage Sites is a visual feast. One of my favorite images shows snow nestled in the curly roof of Japan’s iconic Golden Pavilion, a functioning Zen temple. Another favorite image is of the Shingon Buddhist temple, Daigo-ji, in the autumn, with its vermillion shrine and arched bridge the same intense color as the leaves. But this stunning new coffee-table book is more than pictures; it is also a rich source of both cultural tidbits and practicalities. After college, I taught English in Japan and spent my twenty-fourth birthday at Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto’s premier pilgrimage site. But, as I learned from reading this book, while I was there I missed out on a fascinating if eyebrow-raising experience. In the basement at Kiyomizu-dera, there is an unlit hall dedicated to the Buddha’s mother. For one hundred yen, you can fumble around in the pitch blackness, which is meant to symbolize the womb.

Zen and Bodhi’s Snowy Day

By Gina Bates Brown
Wisdom Publications 2014; 24 pp., $15.95 (cloth)

Impermanence, compassion, and mindfulness are heavy topics, yet Zen and Bodhi’s Snowy Day addresses them with a light, playful touch that is appropriate for young children. The main characters are two koala bears: Zen, who wears bunny slippers and stripped pajamas, and Bodhi, who wears orange ear muffs and a polka dot scarf. Using rhythm and rhyme, Gina Bates Brown tells the story of these bright-eyed bears and their host of friends—cardinals, rabbits, deer, and a blue jay. They wake up to a snowy day, make snow angels, taste snowflakes. They feel the cold breeze; they inhale and exhale. These are simple adventures, but it is this simplicity that makes the bears so easy for kids to relate to. Sarah Jane Hinder does a delightful job with the book’s vibrant illustrations.

Taming the Ox

Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice
By Charles Johnson
Shambhala Publications 2014; 208 pp., $17.95 (paper)

A former professional cartoonist, Charles Johnson is a professor emeritus and writer who won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, making him the second black American male to receive this prize, after Ralph Ellison. At age fourteen, Johnson was perusing his mother’s bookshelf when he found a volume on yoga with a chapter dealing with meditation. Immediately sitting down to follow his breath, he felt himself in the here and now. But as peaceful and renewing as this experience was, it also scared him. Meditation felt like such a powerful tool that maybe he couldn’t control it. By 1981, however, he’d found the meditation teachers he needed and began a daily practice in earnest. Now, in Taming the Ox, Johnson explores Buddhist themes, especially the recent emergence of black American dharma practice. While Johnson chews on tough topics in this collection of essays and works of short fiction, it’s an engaging and at times humorous read.

How to Eat

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2014; 128 pp., $9.95 (paper)

While some monastic communities deemphasize food in favor of focusing wholly on the spiritual, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community considers food central to practice. “In the Catholic tradition, in the Eucharist,” Thich Nhat Hanh says, “you see the piece of bread as the body of Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition, we see the piece of bread as the body of the cosmos.” When we mindfully savor each bite, we understand that in bread there’s the sun and rain, the soil and compost, the farmer and baker, because without any one of them there’d be no bread. So, when we eat mindfully, we feel nourished by and connected to the universe. We also become more aware of own bodies and emotions and, thus, naturally eat in moderation, leading to better health. Moreover, mindful eating is a powerful tool for social change. In deeply contemplating our food we find ourselves inspired to advocate for best-farming practices and/or take action on behalf of the world’s hungry. How to Eat is a concise and cheerful guide to mindful cooking, serving meals, eating, and washing the dishes.

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Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.